No other option but success

I SAT IN MY dad’s taxicab waiting for my sister, silently observing all the movement around me.

Beating the blues, with help from the blues

“Music is powerful. As people listen to it, they can be affected. They respond.” —Ray Charles


Finding myself in a foreign country

DESTINATION: Liberia, West Africa.

Travel distance: 7,690 miles.

Mission accomplished.

604 pages of the Quran, memorized

AT 4 A.M., MOST TEENAGERS are usually sleeping in their cozy beds. I was 12 and wide awake. Memorizing the Quran.

My journey to happiness

I STARE INTO the antique body-length mirror mounted on the wall in the bathroom.

Ready for my life after high school

ABOUT TWO YEARS AGO, I was dorm-room shopping.

I was moving out of the house for the fall semester.

Saying goodbye to my parents.

Meeting my new roommate.


Turning my disappointment into a high note

IT FELT AS IF bandits had banned me from lead clarinetist in my high school band ensemble.

Discovering the power of language

I NERVOUSLY STEPPED through the classroom door­way with my father trailing behind me.

Finding a voice through sports

“WHAT SIZE ARE your shoes?” the man asked.

“What?” I turned to see the only person waiting at the bus stop.

“Your shoes,” he said, gesturing at my feet.

The act of helping

I LURCHED FORWARD in the backseat of my mom’s green minivan, restrained only by my seatbelt, so she could see me in her peripheral vision while driving.

Loving myself

“WE WANT ‘THUNDER Thighs’ on our team,” shouted a classmate.

All the girls in gym class darted their eyes toward me. I had no words. And while most laughed, I ran to the bathroom.

Learning from my mother’s sacrifice

THERE SHE WAS, the woman who carried me in her womb with every inch and every muscle of her body for nine straight months, exasperated on the couch next to my 4-year-old sister.

Grandmother is a friend, role model

MY 69-YEAR-OLD grandmother, Jamila, is part parent, teacher and best friend.

Becoming resilient, in and out of the pool

IT WAS COLD. Freezing cold. Like the sub-zero temperatures of Antarctica.

More than helping with cleaning

THE BROOM BRUSHED the floor of the kitchen as my mom sighed.

“Mom, do you need help with anything?” I ask.

My life as a gamer

I CAN FEEL my sweat-encased fingers stick to the keys. The rapid pounding of my heart resounds in my head. I hear the powerful boom of the woman’s voice as we land the winning hit, “Victory!”

The journey with my mother

MY FATHER LEFT on Christmas 2011.

I kind of saw it as a present, rather than a tragedy.

I wouldn’t miss the colored pencil drawings scribbled on the walls, the smell of damp socks, mice poop under furniture, cockroaches creeping through the cracks and dirty dishes on display the majority of the times.

Climbing higher, growing stronger

AT AN ELEVATION OF 7,290 feet, we – 40-some American high school students – started hiking up the mountain single file, placing one foot in front of the other while we tried to keep pace with the person in front of us.

Around us, the cold, bleak, snow-capped mountains stood on either side of the closed-in valley, with brown grass signaling the approach of winter. 

A lesson in being truly grateful

AS I STARED at the black streaks of slimy, putty-like goo that were thrown onto my bed­room ceiling during my 10th birthday celebration, I resented my living situation.

I hated the fact I shared a tiny bed­room with my older sister and mother in my grandparents’ basement.

Working hard on my path forward

WALKING INTO A ROOM full of strangers is scary. Especially when you’re the newest and youngest person there.

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